In March 1940 shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War the Rev Dennis B Hall – the then vicar of St Michael & All Angels church – started to write a series of circular letters to those members of his congregation, both past and present, who were serving in the armed forces. The aim was to keep them in touch with what was going on back at home and bring them up to date with what was happening to the friends they knew from the Bible Class, Choir and other church organizations. After the war these documents were put together in a single slim volume entitled “The Hall Mark”.
Known by many at St Michael’s as “Spider” on account of his appalling hand writing, the Rev Hall was Vicar here from 1930 to 1947, having previously served as Curate at Bishopswearmouth and as Chaplain to HMS Conway at Birkenhead. He was educated at Bristol Grammar School and at Bristol and Durham Universities. He obtained an Economics degree and played hockey for Bristol University and Gloucestershire. He was an all round sportsman with a particular affection for rugby and cricket.
His incumbency at St Michael’s included the war years and was noted for his special appeal to children and the young at heart. His letters to the boys in the forces were greatly appreciated by hundreds of Bishopston servicemen all over the world. Always interested in youth organizations, he ran the Isle of Wight Boy’s Camps for many years after the late Archbishop Vinning left for Africa and remained interested in them even after he left these shores himself. Consecrated Assistant Bishop on the Niger in Westminster Abbey on the 25 April 1947, he became “our own missionary” in West Africa for 10 years until ill health forced him to return to this country where he later became Vicar of Thornton Heath in the Diocese of Canterbury. On his return he enjoyed the singular honour of being elected President of the Old Bristolians Society for the year 1958-59.
The Hall Mark was a labour of love gladly shared by the members of the congregation who helped to produce and distribute the letters, which were sent to every part of the world and thousands of letters were received in reply. Looking through these letters so many years after the events have faded into the past I am constantly touched by the warmth, geniality and fellow feeling present in the words written by the Rev Hall. He was obviously much loved by those who knew him and he cared deeply for those he served. Despite the hard times and the many sad stories, he remained cheerful and confident that God would bring them all safely through in the end.
In many ways it is an inspiring work but also full of good humour and funny anecdotes. The letters tell us a great deal about the Rev Hall. He was clearly a very humane man, closely involved in the life of the Parish. He was, however, very much a man of his time both in character and outlook. He was a confirmed bachelor and his was a very muscular sort of Christianity – strong on healthy outdoor activities and a sure sense that God would put all things right. He was a man’s man and his patronising attitude towards women was typical of the times and would be considered sexist to more modern eyes. He was a true patriot, however, confident in the rightness of our cause and certain of victory. He was always ready to give praise to the efforts of our lads abroad and to commend them for the promotions and decorations they earned. The bombing of Bristol and the deaths of our servicemen are noted with dignity and sympathy but, given the nature of the times, it is understandable that these were passed over quickly so that he could concentrate on happier tidings.
He worked tirelessly throughout the war to make sure that the many clubs and institutions associated with the church were kept going, particularly those directed at the youth of the parish. The scouts, choir and bible class were very close to his heart and the letters are full of their comings and goings. He was also very active himself, running a Junior Cadet Company while also chairing the Air Raid Hostels Committee and acting as Group Shelter Marshall. He also served as Chaplain for the Auxiliary Fire Service and as a Firewatcher – he even managed to save the church from burning down by extinguishing an incendiary that had fallen through the roof to ignite in the Vestry. The seasonal events of the year continued as before with youth camps in the summer, carol singing and parties at Christmas and the usual outings for the Choir and the Sunday School.
At times the letters have a surreal quality, regaling us with funny stories from camping expeditions and Sunday School outings one moment and announcing the death or wounding of some former scout or chorister the next. Sometimes he used to worry if he had got the tone of his message quite right but his readers assured him that they were very glad to kept in touch with what was happening to old friends back home and that the letters were strangely comforting to men fighting and dying in a strange land. The letters show that our boys were serving in theatres all over the world and took part in some of the most momentous actions of the war – the Battle of the River Plate, the evacuation at Dunkirk, the sinkings of the Jervis Bay and Prince of Wales, the battle of Kohima, the relief of Malta, the gallant fight of HMS Bramble, D Day, Arnhem and the German surrender were among the many great events witnessed by members of this Parish. Typically he dismissed the destruction wrought during the Bristol Blitz as “a few hard knocks” before going on to reflect that “bombs fall on rich and poor alike and that each is dependent on the other”.
These letters give us a close insight as to how our parents and grandparents lived, thought and fought in a time of great peril. Unfortunately very few of these letters remain in circulation and soon they will disappear altogether. For this reason I have therefore taken the trouble to reproduce these letters in the hope that future generations may continue to read and be inspired by them.
Finally, those of you who have seen the original collection will perhaps be disappointed to see that the type face is somewhat different and that the paper size has been adjusted from A5 to A4. Unfortunately the original document did not scan well and I was forced to translate it into a word document, which does not have the same font as the original. You may also notice that in the process of translation some of Spider’s idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation has been lost, for which I apologise. Fortunately I do have a photocopy of the original which you may borrow on request if you wish.
Needless to say some of the references and abbreviations used have obscured with the passage of time, while it is often difficult to keep track of the different people mentioned in the newsletters. I have therefore taken the liberty of providing some background notes in Annex 1 on some of the events mentioned, while in Annex 2 I have provided some brief biographical notes on the various persons and organisations mentioned. A brief Glossary of some of the terms used in the Hall Mark is also provided at Annex 3.
Finally may I wish you happy reading and ask that you spare a prayer for the forgotten heroes of this Parish when you finish. Also please do not hesitate to contact me if you think I have got any of the key facts wrong.
Robert A Ford